by Jason Maher
What is a Sneakerhead? Audiences new to the culture of collecting sneakers, or kicks which is how aficionados also refer to them, get a dissection of a niche phenomenon which sees people collect and display shoes like art galleries collect and display paintings. Sneakerheadz aims to elucidate the whys and wherefores involved in the collection of shoes in a light and energetic documentary about the guys and gals who spend serious cash and time on a trend sure to baffle outsiders.
In this slick and enthusiastic documentary, directors David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge seek to peel back the mystique and aura surrounding the collection of sneakers by interviewing the designers, cultural gate-keepers, and the collectors of sneakers and showcasing what unites an increasingly international culture of shoes appreciation. From New York to Tokyo we get to meet the people who obsessively collect sneakers in interviews, all of whom share their love of the culture with a series of candid interviews full of memories and wise-cracks.
With an eye to explaining things to newcomers as well as showing some of the depth and complexity to what some may see as a superficial hobby for those obsessed with how they look, the film dives into things from the history of the culture to all of the terminology used by the experts. The film is split up into chapters such as “Glossary” and “History” and a potted history tracking the origins of sneakers, with the help of charismatic interviewees indulging in some ‘80s nostalgia, we see when sneakers truly became a marketing phenomenon in the 1980s when Nike teamed up with basketball legend Michael Jordan and released the first wave of Air Jordans. The documentary brings things to the modern era where ad campaigns are flashier and the way that the internet and ebay culture has changed collecting shoes, taking the sport out of the hunt but opening it up for more people and fuelling interest through laser-targeted advertising campaigns.
Through archive footage and interviews with people including designer Jeff Staple and DJ Clark Kent we see how people travelled from city to city and even to different countries to find obscure stores selling obscure shows and all the while they making contact with a variety of people to discover obscure shoes they could rock. Most interviewees deliver their love of sneakers with passion and wit making the interviews enjoyable. It gives an insight into what drives a Sneakerhead.
Of course with every culture there is a dark side and so it proves in one segment of the film where audiences get a glimpse into how the frenzy for shoes has led to crime and we are shown the startling footage of riots and the alarming statistic that around 1000 deaths a year can be attributed to the desire to own limited edition sneakers. There is also an interview with the mother of a man murdered for his sneakers which grounds the film’s mostly ebullient tone and prevents it from becoming a paean to consumer culture.
If Sneakerheadz has a problem it is that it does not elucidate the culture completely. It is somewhat superficial in the way it races through its subject. There is little real exploration as to how these big corporations may exploit people who make and buy the shoes and whether obsessively collecting is a problem. A brief talk by Dr Carolyn Rodriguez, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and director of its Hoarding Disorder Research Program, teases us as to whether Sneakerheadz’ have some sort of behavioural addiction and sights such as vaults full of unworn shoes would suggest that but her segment is intercut with people talking about their addiction in a jolly tone and a shrug of the shoulders. Perhaps these issues might be better suited to a more serious documentary but there are also many interesting stories brought up here that go unexplored such as Katsushige Kamamoto, owner of Skit stores across Japan who made his fortune reselling old shoes after being homeless.
Whatever criticisms there are, the film still proves to be an entertaining watch thanks to the directors adopting an ebullient attitude to its subject and maintaining a punchy and flowing rhythm thanks to its constant mash-up of amusing talking head interviews, old adverts, shaky mobile phone footage of disorderly shoe releases and on screen text which flies to and fro with grace. The soundtrack is also entertaining, nodding to the importance of Hip Hop in the popularisation of shoes with a soundtrack soaked with classic sneaker anthems and music from the heyday of old school hip hop like “Can I Kick it?” by A Tribe Called Quest and “My Adidas” by Run DMC to new school favourites like “Me and MY Sneakers” by Lupe Fiasco.
The film proves to be a lightweight look at a culture that many will find provides some insight into what a Sneakerhead is even if they may still not completely understand why anyone would want to be one when the credits roll.